Beneath the veneer of every health-conscious woman lurk a few nasty habits. After all, nobody’s perfect. And though you can’t pop a pill for every peccadillo, there are some adjustments—right in plain sight in the vitamin aisle—that can minimize the impact of your dirty little secrets. Of course, they’re not permanent solutions, and you know it: Good health can come only from eating most of the right foods, most of the time. But everyone wants to be nutritionally naughty now and then, and we’ve got just the Band-Aids to cover up your boo-boos.
You buy green vegetables all the time. You just don’t eat them.
Turns out that skipping salad is a relatively minor offense. Greens provide valuable fiber and folate, but so do other vegetables, fruits, and grains (not to mention your breakfast cereal). The potential nutritional risk, experts say, is that you might be missing out on vitamins A and K. But true deficiencies are relatively rare, and as long as you eat plenty of other fruits and vegetables, particularly carrots, cantaloupe, apricots, mangoes, and lettuce, you’re assured of getting these necessary nutrients.
Fast Fix: Eat plenty of the veggies you do like. Try to take in enough vitamins A (700 mcg per day), B6 (at least 1.3 mg per day), and B12 (2.4 mcg per day).
Okay, you hate all vegetables.
Closet vegetable haters are feeling guiltier than ever now that federal dietary guidelines recommend 2 cups of fruit and 21Ž2 cups of veggies (or nine servings total). Well, you’re far from alone—CDC researchers report that 76% of us do not meet fruit recommendations and 87% don’t make the veggie guidelines.
But in this case, there is no hope in a bottle. “We know that vegetables provide literally thousands of phytonutrients,” says Jeffrey B. Blumberg, PhD, director of the antioxidants research laboratory at Tufts University. “No one has discovered a way to put them all into a supplement.” Veggie haters are also likely depriving themselves of much-needed fiber: Between the ages of 19 and 50, women should eat 25 g of dietary fiber each day; after age 50, it’s 21 g, says Joanne Lupton, PhD, a nutritionist at Texas A&M University who worked on the federal fiber guidelines. Yet most women get only about half that.
Fast Fix: Make use of fiber supplements. A serving of a typical fiber supplement provides about 4 g. “Supplements are not dangerous if taken correctly, and they can be helpful in maintaining regularity,” Lupton says. Just make sure to follow the directions to drink enough water. And give yourself a deadline for finding some vegetables you’ll actually eat so that you can shove those fiber supplements to the back of the medicine cabinet, where they belong.
You never lift weights.
Could “bone-jarring” exercise ever be a good thing? Well, yes: Weight-bearing exercise—something more vigorous than your morning stroll—fends off osteoporosis. And most of us are savvy enough to know that calcium is also critical. But it turns out that making sure you get adequate vitamin D is even more important than nutritionists once thought, because it’s crucial for calcium absorption. It’s best to get vitamin D from sun exposure and food, as there’s no chance of taking in too much from these natural sources. But supplements can be toxic. In February 2013, after a review of research found little evidence that vitamin D supplements prevent fractures in healthy women, the US Preventive Task Force recommended that postmenopausal women refrain from taking them.
Fast Fix: Up your vitamin D—judiciously. Current recommendations are 600 IU for men and women ages 19 to 70, and 800 IU for ages 71 and older (though some experts say you should go much higher). For the time being, make sure you’re getting at least what’s suggested for your age group, and don’t worry about going somewhat higher. The tolerable upper limit, according to dietary guidelines, is 4,000 IU per day. Vitamin K is also linked to bone health, so your diet should include 90 mcg per day, entirely from food sources. K is bountiful in broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and leafy greens.
Actually, you don’t exercise as much as you should, period.
You know all the good things exercise can do for your heart, blood pressure, weight, and mood. So far, no one has invented the gym in pill form. But adding a daily dose of vitamin E, an antioxidant, will provide some of the same protection that exercise does from unstable molecules called free radicals. (Free radicals can harm cells, tissues, and organs and are believed to be one of the causes of the degenerative processes seen in aging.) A study at the University of Florida’s College of Nursing found that although exercise and vitamin E offer the best protection from oxidative stress—the damage caused by free radicals—vitamin E on its own was better than nothing.
Fast Fix: Add vitamin E through food sources like almonds, leafy greens, and plant oils (like olive oil). The current vitamin E RDA for women is 15 mg per day, or 22.4 IU; the safe upper limit is 1,000 mg, or 1,500 IU, so don’t be afraid to get more than the 15 mg recommended.
No, you don’t got milk.
The same task force that recommended women avoid taking vitamin D supplements also found that calcium supplements do not offer any higher protection against fractures. Plus, some studies have found a link between getting too much calcium from supplements and heart disease in women. To be safe, it’s best to get as much calcium as you can from food sources, and supplement only for a shortfall (and ideally no more than 500 mg a day).
Fast Fix: Women 31 to 50 should aim for 1,000 mg or calcium a day, while those ages 51 to 70 need a little more (1,200 mg). It’s also best to get as much as you can from whole foods rather than “calcium-added” products; a study from Creighton University found that the bioavailability of the calcium contained in fortified foods, such as orange juice, varied widely, with no way for consumers to tell how much calcium they would absorb from each serving. Dairy products are also rich in riboflavin, says Janelle Walter, PhD, a nutritionist at Baylor University, so if you don’t do dairy, make sure you’re getting 1.1 mg of riboflavin per day from other foods, such as lean meats, eggs, or almonds, or from your multivitamin. (And to keep your bones healthy, make sure you get adequate amounts of vitamins D and K.)
You’ve been pumping up the volume since your teens.
Nutrition can play a role in preventing permanent hearing loss, says Kathleen Campbell, PhD, director of audiology research at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. A diet rich in selenium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and E has been shown to protect rats and guinea pigs from hearing loss and to lessen the damage caused by loud noises. Additional animal research has shown that taurine (an amino acid found naturally in meat and fish, as well as added to some energy drinks) reduces tinnitus in rats exposed to loud sounds, though it’s too soon to make dietary recommendations for people.
Fast Fix: Add some magnesium (found in nuts, leafy greens, and legumes) and selenium (found in fish, mushrooms, and lean meats). While research does not conclusively support that taking supplements prevents or reverses noise-induced hearing loss, it makes sense to ensure that you’re getting all the magnesium (the RDA is 320 mg per day for women) and selenium (55 mcg a day) you need, in addition to your full allotment of vitamins A, C, and E.
You and Jim Beam are on a first-name basis.
Occasional overindulgence doesn’t “deplete vitamin stores in any but the most temporary way,” says Blumberg. However, researchers have linked regular drinking (consumption of more than 30 g of alcohol a day, about as much as in two drinks) with elevated levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that contributes to heart disease; more than one drink a day for women has been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. (Are you drinking too much? Check out these six sneaky signs you’re drinking too much.)
Fast Fix: Beef up your Bs. You can ward off potential pitfalls on your way to Margaritaville by making sure that you’re getting enough folate (400 mcg a day), B6 (younger women need 1.3 mg per day; those over 50, 1.5 mg), and B12 (2.4 mcg a day), which reduce homocysteine levels. It’s also smart for party animals to get plenty of antioxidants, including vitamins C (at least 75 mg a day) and E (a bare minimum is 22.4 IU per day).
That’s not bronzer— you sat in the sun all last weekend.
The perils of all your furtive tanning efforts are obvious (you look as leathery as Crocodile Dundee) and sinister, because you already know that sun exposure puts you at a much higher risk of skin cancer, including deadly melanoma.
Fast Fix: Down an antioxidant cocktail. A diet rich in vitamins C, E, and A has been shown in animal studies, as well as some human epidemiological research, to protect against basal cell carcinoma. Some research has shown that eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables (which contain antioxidants and phytochemicals) may help protect against sunburn. (Of course, daily use of sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher should always be your first line of defense.)
You occasionally brake for big macs.
We’re still waiting for a pill that can counter a high-fat food binge. But fiber can help. Women with consistent high-fiber diets have been shown to have a significantly lower risk of heart disease, as well as a lower risk of obesity.
Fast Fix: Order a side of fiber. McDonald’s salads, though not as tasty as those fries, are just as convenient. No salad available? Ideally, fiber should come from a variety of food sources, says Joanne Slavin, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota, but following your next trip to Taco Bell with a Metamucil chaser is an acceptable substitute, as long as you remember that it’s a nutritional crutch, not a calorie eraser—as popular myths would have you believe.
You spend too much at Starbucks and the soda machine.
Moderate caffeine intake is fine, and the national average—300 mg of caffeine per day (what you’d get from three 8-ounce cups of coffee)—won’t hurt. But besides causing you to bark at your coworkers, nine cups of coffee or more a day is linked to high levels of homocysteine, which raises heart risk. Nine cups may sound impossible, but true caffeine fiends won’t think so: A cup is 8 ounces, so a 20-ounce Starbucks Venti counts as 21Ž2 cups; most take-out cups are 12 ounces. And don’t forget your diet colas—about 25 to 50 mg of caffeine per 12-ounce can. (Diet soda’s not just giving you caffeine; check out these gross side effects of your diet soda habit.)
Fast Fix: Boost folate and B vitamins. If you can’t bear to cut back on yo
ur daily java, getting adequate amounts of folate, B6, and B12 will reduce homocysteine levels, reports a Tufts University study.
You don’t have a headache. Your libido has been on vacation.
While “female Viagra” was just recently approved to treat low sex drive in women, trying a more natural route might also provide benefits. A German study found that boosting intake of ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C) prompted some participants to have sex more frequently than they usually did over a 14-day period. Perhaps not coincidentally, they also reported being in a far better mood.
Fast Fix: Experiment with vitamin C. Though study participants took an ultrahigh dose of 3,000 mg, there’s no harm in starting with the current recommendation of 75 mg a day for women to see if it gets your motor running. And feel free to experiment, says Blumberg, as long as you gradually increase your intake to build up “bowel tolerance.” (Some people find that high doses of C give them diarrhea.) Though the safe upper limit has been set at 2,000 mg per day, “there’s no serious threat of toxicity with vitamin C beyond that level,” he says. “The limit was set because of the risk of loose stools, which could also affect your libido.”
Sleep— who needs it?
If you routinely get less than 8 hours of sleep a night—either on purpose or because you toss and turn—your immune system is paying the price. A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that people who averaged fewer than 7 hours a night were almost three times more likely to get sick than those who logged 8 hours or more.
Fast Fix: If you’re looking for an antidote to afternoon drowsiness, nutritionists point to two basics—eat breakfast and drink plenty of water.
You fake healthy, but you really run yourself ragged.
Not eating right, avoiding the gym, skimping on sleep…many women adopt lifestyles that cause body abuse.
Fast Fix: Think zinc. A number of vitamins and minerals can help our immune systems function optimally, says Blumberg, including zinc and vitamins E, C, and B6. Zinc is easy to get from high-protein foods, such as lamb, pork, and the dark meat of chicken or turkey; it can also be toxic, so don’t exceed 40 mg per day.
Smoke gets in your eyes.
Everyone knows that hanging out with smokers—whether it’s fun at the local bar or misery with your redneck relations—makes your hair stink and your lungs hurt. And research long ago demonstrated that smokers (even those “nonsmokers” who can’t resist a social smoke now and again) need more vitamin C than most. Now, it turns out, so do secondhand “smokers.”
Fast Fix: Adjust your vitamin C. Though the basic RDA of 75 mg may apply to most women, smokers need at least 100 mg a day. That goes for you, too.